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The symbol of the symbolists: Aleksandr Blok in the changing Russian literary canon Book Section
Original citation: Sobolev, Olga (2017) The symbol of the symbolists: Aleksandr Blok in the changing Russian literary canon. In: Hodgson, Katharine and Shelton, Joanne and Smith, Alexandra, (eds.) Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry: Reinventing the Canon. Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK, pp. 123-155. ISBN 9781783740888
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5. The Symbol of the Symbolists: Aleksandr Blok in the Changing Russian
Прославленный не по программе И вечный вне школ и систем, Он не изготовлен руками И нам не навязан никем.
Eternal and not manufactured, Renown not according to plan, Outside schools and systems, he has not Been foisted upon us by man.1
The turn of the twentieth century has always been regarded as a period of extreme dynamism in Russian culture — a time when many traditional values were questioned and transformed. During this period the genuine creative power in verse and prose came from the symbolists, who drew upon the aesthetic revival inaugurated in the 1890s by Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, and freed it of spuriousness and self- gratifying over-refinement. In turning their backs on civic ideals and echoing Stéphane Mallarmé’s saying that poetry ‘yields the initiative to
1 Boris Pasternak, ‘Veter’, Izbrannoe, 2 vols. (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1985), I, 439; Boris Pasternak, ‘The Wind’, Poems of Boris Pasternak, translated by Lydia Pasternak-Slater (London: Unwin, 1963), p. 90.
© 2017 Olga Sobolev, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0076.05
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words’,2 the symbolists brought fascinating resources of language and craftsmanship to their metaphysical preoccupations. Often termed the Silver Age of Russian art, this trend produced a whole host of illustrious authors, including such figures as Valerii Briusov and Konstantin Bal′mont, Zinaida Gippius and Viacheslav Ivanov, Andrei Belyi and the most celebrated poet of the movement — Aleksandr Blok. Quite a few factors may account for Blok’s special position in the constellation of these eminent authors, one of which is directly related to the notion of a poetic canon, considered in the broadest sense of this cultural term. Whether one looks at the idea of canonisation within the framework of institutionalised aesthetics or simply as a literary art of memory (as suggested by Harold Bloom3), Blok stands apart from the cohort of symbolist poets. Not only does he appear to be the only symbolist who was ever accepted in the Soviet-era literary canon, but he retained his status later, when the country was keen to dismiss anything related to the fallen Soviet regime. By analysing Blok’s critical reception throughout the twentieth century and beyond, this study will attempt to establish what aspects of his oeuvre made it central to the country’s literary agenda, as well as by what mechanisms this long-standing cultural value became firmly associated with the corpus of his works. Given that the formation of a canon is necessarily related to the questions of nationhood and self-determination, such an analysis will shed more light on some key issues faced by contemporary post-perestroika Russia, such as the shaping of national identity, and the ways of overcoming the division between the two cultures that was created by the policies of the Soviet authoritarian state.4
The word ‘canon’ was originally used to designate a rule, measure or standard; and many subsequent uses of the term similarly invoke
2 Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Crise de vers’, in Divagations (Paris: Bibliotèque Charpentier, 1897), pp. 235–51 (p. 246); translated in Rosemary Lloyd, The Poet and his Circle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 55.
3 Harold Bloom, The Western Canon (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), p. 17. 4 Russian dissident culture emerged in the 1950s and the 1960s as intellectual
opposition to Communist rule in a form of grassroots practice; it was largely associated with samizdat, a key dissident activity in the dissemination of censored cultural production (classified as a criminal anti-government activity), and it became a potent symbol of the rebellious spirit and resourcefulness of the Soviet intelligentsia; see for instance, Ann Komaromi, ‘The Material Existence of Soviet Samizdat’, Slavic Review, 63 (2004), 597–618.
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the notion of restrictive authority, as when literary critics speak of the need ‘to open’ the canon, ‘to expand’ the canon, or ‘to dispense’ with the canon.5 In actuality, scholars agree that there neither is, nor has there ever been, any such thing as an inherent, strictly defined literary canon, and it is not ‘the reproduction of values but of social relations’6 that should be associated with canonical form; as John Guillory puts it, ‘canonicity is not a property of the work itself, but of its transmission, its relation to other works in a collocation of works’.7 While recognising ‘the historicity of the cultural category of literature itself’, recent theorists of canon formation have begun to examine the interaction of literary taste (or even fashion8) with some larger structures of social and economic power.9 Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, offers the concept of cultural capital to describe how, within a given socio-economic setting, the knowledge of certain literary texts (or art, music and so forth) can be used to describe social competition and stratification, and he points out some ways by which this knowledge is obtained and enhanced: through direct experience and education; through popular culture, and through secondary or tertiary contacts (book reviews, study guides, etc).10 The work of Bourdieu and other scholars on nineteenth-century texts suggests that similar mechanisms might be at work within Russian post-revolutionary culture, although, of course, these must be carefully specified and analysed in relation to that particular socio-historical setting.
The Soviet notion of culture, far from being based on a simplistic Marxist conception of the ideological sphere as little more than a
5 John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 34, 81.
6 Ibid., p. 56. 7 Ibid., p. 55. 8 Isaac D’Israeli, an early promulgator of this view, claimed that ‘prose and verse
have been regulated by the same caprice that cuts our coats and cocks our hats […] and every age of modern literature might, perhaps, admit of a new classification, by dividing it into its periods of fashionable literature’ (Isaac D’Israeli, ‘Literary Fashions’, in Curiosities of Literature (Boston: Lilly, Wait, Colman & Holden, 1833), III, 35–39 (pp. 35, 39), quoted in Alastair Fowler, ‘Genre and the Literary Canon’, New Literary History, 11: 1, Anniversary Issue II (Autumn 1979), 97–119 (p. 97)).
9 John Guillory, Cultural Capital, p. 60; Alastair Fowler, ‘Genre and the Literary Canon’, pp. 97–119.
10 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated by Richard Nice (London: Routledge, 1984).
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reflection of the social material base, emphasised the centrality of the cultural field in shaping and facilitating economic development. Moreover, from the early years of the Soviet state’s existence, literature was considered an effective weapon of class warfare, and all interventionist post-revolutionary cultural campaigns (against illiteracy, religion and bourgeois morality) were conducted precisely in pursuit of this agenda. The official line was set out in a series of articles by Lenin, one of the most significant of which was Pamiati Gertsena (In Memory of Herzen, 1912) that outlined three stages in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement, and effectively defined both the periodisation and the methodology in all branches of the Soviet literary field.11 The first stage was that of a liberally-minded nobility, from the Decembrists to Aleksandr Herzen (1825–1861); it was followed by the Populist period of 1861–1895, and culminated in the so-called ‘proletarian’ era, dating from 1895, the year in which Lenin’s Union for the Emancipation of Working People was founded. When mapped onto the domain of scholarship and education, this later stage was commonly exemplified by the works of Maksim Gor′kii, and by the poetic writings of the Revolutionary Populists, such as Vera Figner, Petr Iakubovich, Nikolai Morozov, and German Lopatin, as well as by the group of certain younger proletarian au